Saturday, June 10, 2006

We Must Go Alone

My Emerson crush is on the wane. The initial flush of the new, the exciting has ended and hard reality is beating on the door. There are some things I still like about him, his courage and integrity, his beautiful descriptions of nature. But it is not enough for love. We shall end up being merely friends by the time the affair is over. In Self-Reliance Emerson admonishes us "to believe your own thought" and "speak your latent conviction." He urges, "trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." Such affirmation! But Emerson is not interested in boosting self-esteem. His aim is to transform us all into non-conformists. You may be more familiar with Thoreau's gentler march to the beat of your own drummer suggestion. While Thoreau encourages us to listen to our own personal music, Emerson beats us about the head and shoulders calling those who conform to society a mediocre mob doomed to unoriginality, sheep who cannot bear to see anyone break away from the herd. Ouch. I'm all for non-conformity but Emerson takes it a bit far by insisting on self-reliance. Through a rabid self-reliance you are working on melding yourself into "the ever-blessed ONE" of the divine spirit. But no one can help you reach it, nor can you help others, "we must go alone." That wouldn't be bad if it was a proposal solely for the spiritual part of ourselves. Unfortunately, Emerson means it to be a physical, day-to-day living philosophy as well:

Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.
He goes on to say that he even feels shame when he "succombs" and gives a "wicked dollar." Emerson has a problem with charity because he sees it as a way for men to buy virtue and expiation and as "an apology or extenuation of [the giver's] living in the world." It is wrong for Emerson to assume that all charity comes from such places, that no one gives because they genuinely care about the well-being of their fellow humans. Does he forget that even Jesus gave alms and helped the poor? That he insisted on it? It is also wrong of Emerson to insist that everyone must take care of themselves and if they can't well too bad. He takes a survival of the fittest attitude:
Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself. The genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are demonstrations of the self-sufficing and therefore self-relying soul.
As in nature so in human society according the Emerson. Not so fast I say. We made it out of caves and to the top of the food chain because we grouped together to help one another. Emerson outlines what self-reliance in religion, self-culture (travel--he is against it), education, and society (property--it's bad) means. He makes some valid points when it comes to education and the high value we place on the ownership of things, but ultimately I think his philosophy of self-reliance is too extreme for the real world. This doesn't mean nothing he says is useful, however. I think we can take from the essay the courage and inspiration to be true to ourselves and attempt to live in a way that does not compromise who we are. Because, as Emerson writes, "nothing can bring you peace but yourself." Next week's Emerson: Compensation